On the second day of my trip, I stroll down Main Street in Joseph, which has such an Old West feel that you almost want to look both ways for tumbleweeds before crossing. On one corner, I spot two guys wearing cowboy hats standing with their arms draped over the back of a pickup truck, and then I pass a horse tied up in one of the store parking lots. But on the same block, a slew of boutiques and art shops, like Kelly’s Gallery on Main, are practically overflowing with tourists, some willing to spend a mint on the bronze art for which Joseph has become known.
The shop’s 44-year-old owner, Kelly Wick, says the Wallowas “have always drawn artists,” and that she’s noticing they have the same effect on tourists. “They say, ‘I want to live here when I retire,’” she says, before showing me a four-and-a-half-foot-wide bronze sculpture depicting a herd of galloping horses (price: $12,500).
“East Coast artists are even sending their pieces to us to cast,” says Malcolm Phinney, the gallery director of Valley Bronze of Oregon, a foundry on W Alder Street in Joseph. No wonder: So well regarded is Phinney’s foundry that it cast the bronze frame surrounding the Declaration of Independence in Washington, D.C.
But Joseph’s art scene would never have come to be if the town were located in a less spectacular setting. It’s this landscape that inspired local hiking guru Fred Barstad to write Hiking Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness. I met him in Joseph one day, where he told me about some noted Wallowa denizens: the bighorn sheep, the mountain goats. But he also bragged about the “scruffy little white-bark pines” that grow at 9,700 feet on Aneroid Peak—which doesn’t sound remarkable until you learn that those are the state’s highest-elevation trees.
Talking with Barstad reminds me of a chat I had at the Terminal Gravity brewpub in the nearby town of Enterprise. Just after I’d ordered a pint of IPA, a sixtysomething man sat down next to me and asked what I was reading. I revealed the title: Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?
“Well, I think they should,” he said, laughing. “They always make places sound so interesting, and then you get there and you’re like ‘That’s it?’” I decided to blow my cover. “Actually, I’m a travel writer and I’m here to write about the Wallowas!”
In that case, he said, you’ll need to know about the thriving art scene. And have I hiked the amazing trails yet? Do I need a map? Because, you know, the bartender used to be a guide.
I thanked him, but I didn’t need any more convincing. I was more than ready to indulge in that bad travel-writer habit of making a place sound too good to be true.
Which will be especially easy in this case, since I won’t have to stretch the truth even a little bit.